Food: The rice storm

There's just no excuse for ready-flavoured risotto when the real thing has never been easier
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Indy Lifestyle Online
At the age of 11, my parents packed me off to a Catholic convent in Brussels, thinking I would emerge fluent in French. Unfortunately, the devout Catholic sisters, who endured long brooding silences of mystical contemplation, proved scarcely welcoming of my halting "J'aime bien le disco-dancing" level. I was hauled up in front of Mother Superior for referring to her as tu, for partaking of holy wafers without being confirmed, and failing to understand physics in French. I read Tolkein's complete works beneath the cover of my desk, in English.

In retrospect, though, it was comparative bliss, and also gave me my first taste of waffles, lager and risotto. Every Friday we fasted, which meant (even as a non-Catholic) you were ordered from your bed at the ungodly hour of 5am to pray in the chapel. It being a day of fast, there was no breakfast, but at lunchtime we were treated to a glass of beer and a soupy risotto. When all you had eaten was a holy wafer it was close to being manna from heaven.

Risottos fit in very well with the meatless substance required by devout clerics, and I am interested to see that at least one famous risotto - alla certosina, with shrimps and frogs - was created by the monks of the Certosa di Pavia, who were only allowed to eat meat on Sundays.

The risottos of my life have only improved, latterly with the added availability of carnaroli and vialone nano rice. The former is liege among risotto rices. When cooked it transforms into a mass of plump firm grains enveloped in a sticky embryonic cream. Vialone nano is more petite and refined. Would that the story ended there. In going to buy risotto rice yesterday (I'll name names here, as Sainsbury's, in Cromwell Road in London should be ashamed), I would happily have settled for any of the three risotto rices, but they had sold out. Instead, the shelves were filled with flavoured risotto rices, the likes of nero di seppia, quattro formaggio and spinaci. You really don't want to know what's in them. I fail to understand why Riso Gallo, which has so successfully provided the wherewithal for our love affair with the risotto, should risk ruining the relationship by introducing such aberrations.

The beauty of a risotto lies in the basic ingredients required in making it. There aren't many truly fancy risottos. They tend to increase in luxury with the quality of the rice, the stock - which should be fresh and clean - and the Parmesan, ideally grated from a chunk of parmigiano reggiano broken off from a block.

But this is to leave it sounding perfunctory, when in essence it should reek of sex appeal. Squid-ink risotto if it came in human form would be sparsely clad on a chaise longue. To anyone put off by its colour, or simply by the notion of consuming the bodily fluids of a cephalopod in the name of pleasure, I would urge you to close your eyes and taste it. I would be torn to name that or a Milanese saffron risotto as my all-time favourite. At the upper end of the scale, there is the extremely rare gilding of shaved truffle over the surface. We certainly never got that in the convent. How those clerics miss out.

Risotto with Chinese greens and Fontina, serves 4

The slight bitterness of Chinese greens marries a treat with the sweetness of rice and cheese in much the same way as spring greens.

300g choi sum or ung choi (water spinach), cut into 5-7cm lengths

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, peeled and sliced

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

50g unsalted butter

300g carnaroli or vialone nano rice

1.2 litres vegetable stock, seasoned with sea salt

150ml white wine

50g freshly grated Parmesan

75g fontina, diced

black pepper

Bring the stock to the boil in a small saucepan and keep it at a simmer throughout cooking the risotto. Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan and sweat the onion until it is soft without allowing it to colour. Add the rice and toast it for about a minute, until it turns translucent. Add the wine, which will seethe. Once this has been absorbed, start to add the stock a couple of ladles at a time, waiting for each addition to be absorbed before adding any more. After 20-25 minutes, remove it from the heat while it is still on the soupy side and the rice is slightly firm to the bite.

Five minutes before the end of cooking the risotto, heat the olive oil in a frying pan and add the garlic. After a moment of sizzling remove it and add the greens. Stir until the leaves wilt, then cover the pan and steam over a low heat for 2 minutes, stirring halfway through. Remove the lid and season the leaves. Stir the Parmesan, fontina and greens into the risotto, and season with black pepper